Last month The Green Capsule did a review of Ellery Queen’s second Wrightsville novel, The Murderer is a Fox. In the comments, there were several tantalizing allusions to the third in the series, Ten Days’ Wonder, and I’m eager to see what TGC makes of it once he reads it… but ever since the subject came up the book has, on and off, been on my mind, and so I’m going to do my own review of it right now! I’ve already done a brief entry explaining what I think is its great flaw in a spoiler-free way, but the time has come for a fuller treatment.
Warning! It’s impossible to discuss Ten Days’ Wonder seriously without spoiling the ending, and spoiling the ending is exactly what I’m going to do in this review! I’m even going to name the murderer! So if you haven’t read it, please stop reading now!
Also, while I’m not going to spoil the endings of Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox, I’m going to allude to some things that might be considered spoiler-ish, so you should have already read those as well!
Ahem. Those of you who have read Wonder will recall that it’s the story of sculptor Howard Van Horn, who’s prone to blackouts that last several days and has no idea what he does during them. He comes to his onetime friend Ellery Queen for help, and Ellery returns to Wrightsville (Howard’s home town) to stay at the estate of Howard’s adoptive father Diedrich, a larger-than-life tycoon. His pretext for the visit is that he’s trying to finish a novel by deadline, but actually he’s there to keep an eye on Howard and follow him if he blacks out again.
Soon enough Ellery learns that Howard had a one-night stand the previous year with his pretty young stepmother Sally, and that a mysterious blackmailer now has his hands on certain letters Howard foolishly wrote to her, letters that would make the truth plain to the cuckolded Diedrich. Howard and Sally have both sworn never to revive the affair, and are now willing to pay up rather than see Diedrich hurt by learning what happened, even though Ellery warns that they’ll just end up paying till they run out of money, and the extortionist will then spill the beans anyway…
Things get tangled from then on, with revelations about Howard’s biological parents, a midnight trip to a local graveyard, Diedrich asking more than once what the hell is going on, and Ellery almost getting arrested on a charge of theft before storming out of the Van Horn house in anger. As he’s driving back to New York, he suddenly sees the pattern that he’s overlooked until now — over the course of the book, Howard’s broken nine of the Ten Commandments, and he’s about to break the one he hasn’t yet – Thou Shalt Not Kill. Racing back to Wrightsville in the belief that Diedrich is going to be Howard’s target, Ellery explains to the millionaire that he’s in deadly danger — only to discover that Howard’s actually killed Sally in the course of another blackout. When Howard is arrested, Ellery explains his solution to Police Chief Dakin and County Prosecutor Chalanski – and when Howard commits suicide before he can be taken to jail, the case is closed, and becomes a national sensation that has everybody calling the case the greatest of Ellery’s career.
A year passes, during which Ellery solves one tough case after another, until finally he decides enough sleuthing is enough and tries to go back to novel-writing. A chance discovery leads him to suspect that Howard couldn’t have come up with the Ten Commandments pattern on his own, and further inquiries tell him that Diedrich had been lying about a key finding in the investigation, and that a crucial piece of evidence had been faked. Putting all the clues together, Ellery sneaks into the Van Horn house and confronts Diedrich with the truth – he’d known all along about the affair, he’d decided to kill Howard and Sally in revenge, and he’d come up with the whole complicated Ten Commandments frame-up of Howard because it was the kind of thing Ellery would figure out and, having done so, believe to be the truth. Ellery lets Diedrich commit suicide rather than face trial and, nobody else knowing he’d been in the house, leaves in silence.
So, where to start? (Yeah, all that was preliminary!) Well, there are a lot of good things about Wonder. There is a constant pervasive sense of menace, of things going on that we can vaguely perceive but not understand, that makes it Queen’s best novel of suspense. There’s a moment of genuine peril for Ellery when it looks as if Chief Dakin is going to haul him off to jail. And Diedrich and Howard are two of Queen’s most memorable characters, even if you want to slap Howard half the time.
Now let’s reiterate my main criticism of the novel, the one I wrote that earlier entry about: Ellery’s solution contains a basic logical flaw. He concludes that since the blackmailer read Howard’s letters to Sally, and the person who framed Howard for the Ten Commandments crimes also read them, those two people are in fact the same person… whereas there’s no reason why the person who stole the letters couldn’t have shown them to one or more other people. Which means that Ellery’s blaming the whole deadly enterprise on Diedrich lacks a solid foundation, and disqualifies Wonder as a true fair-play mystery.
According to the Dannay-Lee letters collected in Joseph Goodrich’s Blood Relations, Fred Dannay spent two years (on and off) coming up with the plot structure of Wonder, and when Manny Lee was writing the actual book, he spotted a flaw in the solution. Rather than try to get Dannay to correct it and have to rewrite a lot of the book, he just wrote around it with as much panache as possible. Lee’s letter does not specify what the flaw was, but I bet this was it. You have to wonder how Dannay reacted once he learned about the problem.
Another thing that bothers me is how Diedrich is supposed to have thought up the Ten Commandments frame-up and made all the necessary arrangements in the two days between the time Howard phoned him from Ellery’s apartment and the time Ellery arrived in Wrightsville. Particularly improbable – for a story set before the Internet existed – is the idea that he could have come up with the H.H. Waye anagram, looked for the grave of someone of the right age… who had died at the right time… and whose last name was Waye, failed to do so but found one for a couple named Way, and carved the extra letter on their tombstone. Ellery says that Way is not an uncommon surname, but the Mongabay census-data website (invaluable if you’re a writer trying to come up with character names) says it was the 2,605th most common surname in the U.S. in 1990, and I imagine it was around that same position forty-odd years earlier (maybe higher because of the influx of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, etc. that happened in between). I think Diedrich would have had to spend a lot more time driving around and visiting graveyards before he found even the approximation of what he was looking for.
This aspect of the story reminds me of one of those John Dickson Carr novels where the detective says in the last chapter, “Gentlemen, are we to believe that A, B, C, D and E all happened in an impossibly tiny span of time?” Except that here, we are supposed to believe just that.
Also, if the case became a national sensation, wouldn’t at least one newspaper have sent someone to take a photo of the tombstone? That would have let the cat out of the bag right away. A reporter might also have looked into the matter of Dr. Southbridge.
I have no trouble believing that Howard and Sally, both of whom owed Diedrich an awful lot, would have been wracked by guilt at the way they were deceiving him throughout most of the novel. I do have trouble believing they wouldn’t have figured they were torturing him all the more by arousing his suspicions, and simply made a clean breast of it (and ruined his whole plan).
As well, it sure is lucky for Diedrich that Howard’s detective friend was Ellery Queen and not, say, Archie Goodwin. If Archie had been the one handling the drop-off at the Hollis Hotel, he would never have played a lone hand the way Ellery does – as soon as he got back from the Friday picnic, he’d have phoned up Saul and Orrie and Fred to come help him out, and maybe had Del Bascom send a squad of men for good measure. And with a whole bunch of trained P.I.’s on stakeout, Diedrich’s scheme for taking the money undetected would have failed.
Wonder is the first Wrightsville novel to feature a murderer who’s one of those masterminds who manipulates everyone, including Ellery, before finally being unmasked. As such, it makes Wonder a far less naturalistic novel than the previous two, both of which featured culprits who might far more easily have existed in real life. Nice that Queen wasn’t just doing the same thing over and over in his favourite small town, but the transition from relative realism to quasi-fantasy is a jarring one.
A final puzzle related to Wonder comes as late as the next Wrightsville novel, Double, Double (no spoilers for that one here!). As I’ve mentioned, Ellery’s “Howard did it” solution becomes famous and adds lustre to the legend of Ellery Queen, Great Detective. Then at the end, he lets Diedrich commit suicide on whatever pretext he likes, the strong implication being that no one else will ever know about their late-night conversation, and the world will continue to believe in Ellery’s original solution. Yet in Double, Malvina Prentiss says that all three of Ellery’s previous Wrightsville cases have been “skunk eggs”. If the world still thinks Howard is the killer in this case and Ellery the sleuth who trapped him, how is the case thought of as a failure? Maybe Diedrich’s suicide note (which Ellery never read) confessed the truth, and it came out when it was too late for Ellery to do anything about it?
(For that matter, why would Malvina think Town and Fox were “skunk eggs”? In each case, Ellery suppresses the truth, but lets the world believe a false solution that won’t harm any living person.)
It’s interesting to note that according to Francis M. Nevins, Anthony Boucher “hated” Wonder, calling the two solutions a “farrago of nonsense” in a letter to Lee and having a private meeting with Dannay (with John Dickson Carr as a witness!) in which he unloaded about his feelings. A few months later, though, his review of the book in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was a lot milder, and after voicing his criticisms, he actually said “I’m ashamed of myself for quibbling.” I have a feeling it would have been better if EQMM had had a policy of not publishing reviews of Queen novels at all than making Boucher feel as though he had to pull his punches.